Marija Zidar is a Slovenian filmmaker with a Bachelor’s Degrees in Journalism and English Language and Literature and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Ljubljana. She is passionate about presenting thoroughly investigated social issue stories through intimate, sensitive, and empathetic visual storytelling. She has written and directed documentaries for RTV Slovenia.
Tara Karajica talks to Marija Zidar about feminism and film, her debut feature documentary, “Reconciliation,” an epic tale of hatred and reconciliation documented over five years in Albania’s mountainous north, a place stuck obstinately in a patriarchal past, and what she is tackling next. The film premiered at this year’s CPH:DOX Film Festival and is now screening in the Europe! Voices of Women in Film program at this year’s Sydney Film Festival
How did you make the switch from journalism and sociology to filmmaking?
Marija Zidar: I first wrote a few documentaries for Television Slovenia and then directed one. But I soon realized that I’m drawn to cinema and author-driven documentaries, which I’d watched mountains of, so I began developing Reconciliation. I was completing my PhD in Sociology towards the end of filming. But during the entire process, I had been studying Film and Documentary on my own – there’s a reason why film schools exist – it’s an art, but also a craft with a hundred-year History. I was acutely aware that I needed to study and learn it.
How did Reconciliation come about?
M.Z.: An Albanian scholar told me that the topic of Albanian blood revenge has been covered a thousand times, but never correctly. I was intrigued by this statement and began researching. What I found was a very modern collision of different value systems, State law, religion and ancient laws that in Albania were revived and reinterpreted, after the fall of Communism – at a time when the new democratic Government had fallen and the country was on the brink of civil war. In the case of traditional laws, only the mentality was revived, but their strict regulations and ritualistic aspect were not. It created a confusion. This was precisely what the far-right populism in Europe has been proposing: the return to “old values”, national religions and mythology, patriarchy, etc. Old solutions for modern problems. I then went in search of a story.
In the film, you move past the stereotypical portrayals in Western media of blood revenge, honor, primitive violence. Can you comment on that? How does your film differ from the portrayals of Albanians in Western media?
M.Z.: It was mainly portrayed as if these old Kanun laws – which the West found very fascinating – exist in the same way as they did centuries ago. They don’t. In films, documentaries, media reports, we could see mainly families locked inside the house in fear of revenge due to some mysterious, old savage laws. This is simplified and misrepresented. No one is self-imposed in this film.
First and foremost, this is a story about conflict, the anatomy of a conflict. This is what that I found to be universal and was intimately drawn to. A young woman is killed in a long-standing family conflict, and the two sides disagree on virtually everything: why the conflict exists in the first place, how and why the girl was killed. The film shows the perspectives of everyone involved, in a Roshomon fashion. It also reveals a conflict on a broader social level as there’s no consensus on what value system to rely on to resolve the conflict now. The perpetrator’s side defends the Kanun, an ancient code of law, which demands public forgiveness from the girl’s father, and a reconciliation. It’s a matter of family honor – despite the fact that the perpetrator is imprisoned. And, the father’s side rejects the Kanun with Christian, theological arguments. Two mediators step in, a Catholic bishop, and a chair of a “reconciliation NGO” from the capital who claims to be a representative of old laws. There’s no consensus on anything, and I found this symptomatic. This is a highly patriarchal society, and what really goes on behind closed doors has never been shown before. Many stereotypes are shattered, including the one on the role of the mother.
What was the research process like? How have your degrees in Journalism and Sociology helped in that regard?
M.Z.: The research process was long; it’s, of course, not difficult to get to Albania, but it’s extremely difficult and time-consuming to get behind the scenes and gain trust. Albania was completely isolated during Communism, hermetically sealed, and Enver Hoxha suppressed and eradicated both the Kanun laws and religion during fifty years. When the country reopened, tens of thousands of Albanians wished to emigrate abroad due to a poor economic situation. One of the key reasons given in asylum applications was precisely blood revenge. Many NGOs that issued certificates that individuals or families were in blood revenge were founded, and the State persecuted them as corrupt businesses and for issuing fraudulent documents in exchange for money. Also, when people cooperated with the NGOs, they would refuse to cooperate with the State, which thwarted the rule of law. But these NGOs, mostly individuals, were precisely the gatekeepers for Western media, and it was in their best interest to propagate myths on blood revenge, show them their “selection of cases”, and inflate numbers. This is not to say that these individuals and families were not in a difficult situation, and that murders didn’t happen, but a lot of it was smoke and mirrors, a Potemkin village.
The DoP, Latif Hasolli, who is Kosovo Albanian, and I decided to follow a case in the Highlands that was not in the media yet, and also not “controlled” by any of the Reconciliation NGOs, and which we got to through a local bishop. Simultaneously, separately, we followed the activities of the chair of the largest Reconciliation NGO in Albania. It wasn’t until almost a year and a half later that the two storylines accidentally merged, when the NGO chair found out that we’re following another case, and decided to step in. What follows is a great deal of confusion.
How have you managed to remain objective and stay away from clichés?
M.Z.: How emotionally impacted I would be with this story and our protagonists’ experiences was what I was least prepared for. You’re not just an observer, you’re there as a human being, feeling their experiences on a very physical level. Deconstructing clichés and stereotypes about tradition, religion, the way of life in remote areas in Europe, patriarchy, this topic… was one of my main goals. For sure, my background was relevant in how I saw the bigger picture, what elements I included, and what I was paying attention to. But this was a human story, and my aim was to make cinema, a film, not a reportage, and here your human emotions and experiences of another person’s story come at play – you’re trying to convey emotions in the film. For over four years, we were in the midst of a conflict, in the aftermath of a young woman’s death, with the question of whether it can be resolved. Conflicts wear your soul down, there’s just a claustrophobic atmosphere while the emotions are suppressed. It was a challenge to visually show these aspects because between one eruption of violence and another, emotions are mainly internalized, not necessarily expressed overtly, especially not in this patriarchal setting, sometimes it’s more passive aggressive – and this is what we show in the film.
The reasons behind the revival of the Kanun are far more complex than just old laws surviving intact in the present day and in that sense you delve into the collision between modern constitutional law and ancient codes of behavior. Can you talk about that?
M.Z.: Albania had a complete break with tradition for almost half a century, under Communism. So while, especially in the Highlands, the Albanian tribal society was widely considered as the last true remaining tribal society in Europe almost until World War II – a large part of Europe once consisted of tribal societies –, the impact of Communism was indelible. The dictator Hoxha not only suppressed religion and tradition, but he also introduced a system of spying; family members were forced to spy on one another, which had a devastating and long-lasting effect on family and tribal ties, and the connecting social tissue and trust. Incidentally, our film indicates that the origins of the conflict in our story stem from this period, not from a prior blood revenge. Also, the Kanun laws were very ritualistic, and how and why you could take revenge was described in detail – and the penalties for not following these rules were severe. None of this was preserved to present day. In a general state of lawlessness in the 1990s, the mentality that you could take justice into your own hands was resurrected, but neither the rules nor the society that could enforce them were preserved. Our film shows the complexity of this situation, this modern mix of the remains of tradition, State laws and religious laws mixed together. It’s a modern imitation of an old ritual, and the film shows why this can’t work.
The film is an observation of tragedy and absurdity of a male conflict in a very patriarchal Balkan society. Can you comment on that?
M.Z.: The tragic part is clear: the conflicting sides, men from the two sides of a family, who are also related, live next door, a young woman lost her life in a crossfire, and the film shows the aftermath of this tragic event. But how now the father’s side is being pressured into forgiveness was painful to witness. And, some of these attempts are plain absurd.
Women are not present in the mediations and their voices are not heard. Can you comment on these matters?
M.Z.: It was important for me to be present in these mediations that involve men only precisely for this reason. Women, female family members, were traditionally excluded from these talks. I was there – a different set of eyes. The mother was present too, though not included in the talks for the majority of it, and we show how she sees the situation, through her eyes. Not showing what actually takes place behind closed doors, which we see here for the first time, mystifies the patriarchy, and actually reinforces the idea of the importance of male power. We show their human side, which is not extraordinary at all, and certainly without any mystique.
But we can see how this is replicated in our societies too, even within the industry. Now there’s a focus on the voices of women filmmakers, but it immediately turned into a single marketable mold: a woman filmmaker focusing on a female character, preferably resisting patriarchy. This incredibly restricting and limiting idea of a woman’s voice is our society’s blind spot. There was some discussion, as we started presenting this film to industry people, that it should focus “more on the women,” that there’s too much focus on the male members of the family – and how is this a female perspective? The mother’s role in the film is very important, and the female perspective in any case is not just about female characters. Not to mention that it’s just us, women filmmakers, who first need to argue a distinct perspective, and then defend it against stereotypes. I wanted to show a microcosm involving the complex role of men and women in this story, instead of a singular perspective.
Can you talk about the shooting and editing processes?
M.Z.: Many documentaries begin with a very small team and a long process. In our case, the DoP who is also the Kosovo co-producer, and I were a two-person crew. The documentary method is observational, extremely challenging for the DoP as it involves incredibly long hours of work – just getting to the location took five to six hours – and focus. We invested a lot of work in the visual approach, reviewed, analyzed and catalogued footage daily. There was little room for error with the observational approach – everything happens only once. Establishing a human relationship and trust with what we call “protagonists” takes time too – and it’s the most important part. But a two-person crew worked well for the rest of the filming. We convinced Danijel Hočevar of Vertigo, an established producer, with the early footage, and co-producers joined later on. We followed this story over the span of five years.
The editing process was long, around a year altogether, but it spanned over almost three years if I count the first editing versions, and the pauses were perhaps the hardest part for me personally – you start anew each time. First, with the co-editor, Mariana Kozáková, we did the groundwork, assembling five hours and a couple of rough cuts from out over two hundred hours of footage in long months of meticulous work. When the editor Uroš Maksimović entered, he had a fresh eye, proposed the right editing approach, and had not only the right emotional sensitivity, a similar ethical approach to the story and protagonists, but I also felt that he simply had my back at all times. I’m grateful to both for their dedication. It is a complex story with a complex background and shows the sides of everyone involved. The decision to go with the observational method meant that the protagonists were not directed, continuity footage was lacking, and editing had to not only compensate for that, but make it into a virtue instead of a flaw. I didn’t choose the observational method because I think it’s “holy” or better than any other, but because this was a real conflict – how would you feel if someone tried to direct you or tell you what to do in such a tragic family situation?
Has the family of the victim seen the film? What were their reactions?
M.Z.: Yes, I had promised to them that I’d show them the film before it came out, and drove to Lekbibaj to the mountains at the beginning of this year. The entire family, the children included, watched it. The period after we finished shooting and before the film came out was very long, and during this entire time I felt a tremendous moral burden on behalf of everyone involved, and a great sense of responsibility. This is not a story, it’s someone’s life. How will the existence of this film impact it? On their side, they were facing pressures from the local community on why they had allowed filming for so long. I felt grateful and relieved when both the mother and the father said: “This is how it was.” And, they all loved the ending. The two daughters who weren’t there and had seen it later texted me.
What subjects interest you and that you tackle in your work? What would you like audiences to come away with after watching your film?
M.Z.: Promote empathy, raise questions, stir the need to watch it again.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
M.Z.: I’m not sure that I have a favorite, but for some reason, one film immediately came to mind upon this question – probably because I’d re-watched and studied it while filming in Albania, and even “forced” my DoP to see it. It’s Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman. An entire world and a sense of doom conveyed through a meticulously detailed daily ritual. And Chantal was only twenty-five when she made this extraordinary masterpiece.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in the film industry these past four years. What is your take on the matter? How is it in Slovenia?
M.Z.: What’s called “positive discrimination” is unfortunately needed. A Slovenian Film Centre study found that between 1995 and 2017, 90% of films within the national film program were directed by men. I was twenty-five when the first feature fiction film directed by a woman, Maja Weiss, came out in Slovenia. But I’m skeptical about how quickly the current focus on women filmmakers can become just a marketable trend and lip service. What’s not given enough attention to is the economic situation of women filmmakers – and how to turn it into a sustainable career. While filmmakers in Europe in general struggle, the EU statistics clearly show that cumulative effects make it hard for women filmmakers to negotiate fairer contracts, fees comparable to their male counterparts, a fairer share of film profits and secondary revenue, to balance work and family, work in less precarious conditions, etc.
Theorists call the Western form of patriarchy “economic,” “capitalist” or “public” patriarchy; it’s inextricably linked to the struggle for fairer conditions in the capitalist economy for all social groups. In terms of power positions, the film industry has traditionally been dominated by men – patriarchal – if you will. So, I’m sorry, but until the root economic causes are addressed and shifted, young women filmmakers and their female character-driven films can be little more than a photo-op and a pat on the shoulder from the very same “film patriarchs” that dictate their unfavorable work conditions. The dirty secret of any form of patriarchy is that it establishes the social context – whose execution is mainly left to women. In the traditional Albanian society, women were under double control – it’s women who supervised and enforced the actual gender rules, not men. Not very different from our societies where men traditionally held power positions, and women the lower executive layers. So, just more women entering the film industry is not enough; the old mentality, its many blind spots and power positions need to shift too.
What are you working on next?
M.Z.: Several ideas are brewing; it was virtually impossible to think about filming due to lockdown. And, in Slovenia, the Government blocked the entire sector. I also found suitable collaborators in the meantime – for me, the DoP is the most important part. I fell in love with hybrid documentary forms, but also with a documentary series format.
Photo credits: Lenart J. Kučić.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: